The Call for Sustainable Fashion
If you’re a fan of the Batman movies like I am, there is a demand signal for help that that is flashed across the skyline when the mythical Gotham city is in distress. The light signifies that the city needs Batman. This is called the bat signal. We see signaling in real life also- a siren on an ambulance or a trigger that stock levels are low for those of us who manage inventory policies (signaling a reorder point). No matter what method is used, we are expectant of some sort of alert or call to action and the fashion supply chain is no different. It often happens that this signal is not sent in enough time to help as confusion happens as to who should call for help.
Now more than ever the fashion supply chain is under scrutiny to clean up its act, be sustainable, and figure out ways to implement change. Exactly what does this even mean? The blame is being placed on the shoulder of the consumer to ask for what they want via purchasing (vote with your dollars). Business is driven by consumer demand, but how to create what customers want and in what quantity is a complex formula that should not look at only sales figures. As a shopper, you and I are told to “buy less, buy better quality” yet with a click of a button (and very soon in your favorite stores again) instant satisfaction awaits- how can this possibly clean up a broken supply chain? We are living in a time of a recession, global pandemic, police brutality that has sparked protest and outrage worldwide, and starvation. There is unrest amongst the very people who make our clothes. **And we must remember that not everyone can afford the higher price tags that often come with sustainable fashion.
People are shopping to take their minds of the world’s problems while simulaneously are contributing to an even bigger dilemma. The online cash registers are ringing and next day delivery and free shipping have delivery services working overtime to keep up which creates more emissions, wasteful packaging, and potential returns. Overconsumption has been an ongoing problem and continues to get worse. Price and convenience play a large role in what people buy even though shoppers want these products to be sustainable. Eco-friendly purchases also help to ease the guilt consumers have for buying non-essential items.
Consumers are savvy and more knowledgeable about their purchases but using their demand signals as catalyst to create sustainable fashion is risky business for fashion companies. The idea is that the customer demand will push brands to be have better business models, but how can a consumer fix what they are not aware of?
Previously I shared how you can ‘wear your values’ – these small yet mighty micro steps can help push for improvement in the fashion supply chain that is responsible for contributing to climate crisis, overproduction, minimize reverse logistics, and horrible conditions for garment workers.
Information overload, where do we start?
In moving the conversation forward, let us consider how apparel brands are placing the demand signal for sustainably produced goods on the consumer. Green Biz reports that “consumer demand for sustainable, climate-friendly products remains insufficient to drive systemic change” (Green Biz 2020). Brands are doing a disservice to their customer base by just highlighting their own values, they need to take it a step further and give the customers steps in making their own lives sustainable (especially with their proposed products and solutions.) Cause marketing is nice, but people need to understand the value of what they are buying. Shopping does not come with a set of work instructions; consumers are looking for their favorite brands to make it easier for them to adopt sustainability and easy ways to understand what those metrics entail.
A reminder that the consumer is overwhelmed with data and is unclear on the metrics used that make a product sustainable. It’s a vicious cycle of finger pointing that allows the brands that market a luxury lifestyle with low cost production factories producing tons of product far away from public view. Supply chain professionals have the knowledge to create change-if they are involved at all levels of a business great things can happen. It shouldn’t be consumers’ responsibility to push for brands to source or create better manufacturing processes.
Brands are signing pacts and proclamations at their own pace- too slow to provide real change. When it comes to sustainability consumers are believing the messages from their favorite brands.
“Brand affinity has a halo effect: how much someone likes a brand positively correlates with how sustainable they believe the brand to be, no matter how sustainable the brand actually is, the Vogue Business Index shows... With the exception of the small minority of hyper-conscientious customers, most people don’t look critically at brands’ sustainability policies before choosing where and how to spend their money. That may seem like an invitation for brands to take shortcuts on their environmental efforts, since consumers don’t seem to be doing their homework about what’s legitimate or effective and what’s not. But a widening pool of experts — say doing so would be shortsighted” (Vogue Business 2020)
Improvement Strategies & Education
So, who is the leader in the race to meet the call for sustainable products? How can consumers understand how their favorite products are produced? An understanding that consumers require more information if they are to remain a loyal customer is evident. Scorecard metrics on vendor/supplier location, water usage, and other CSR indicators (corporate social responsibility) are posted on many brand websites.
A wave of consumer backlash could happen at any time, as consumers start to push for understanding of brand policies (inclusive of diversity in leadership, quality of products used in production, and conditions of production factories) brands need to learn from companies who are leading with sustainability built into their business models and not wait for a customer to ask.Consumers can also use tools like the Good on You Index to understand how their favorite brands rank or for the curious eco- conscious shopper look for the radical transparency offered by brands like Everlane
who demonstrate their supply chain in a clear and understandable way. Want to know more? Try out mapping the entire supply chain on with a tool such as MIT created Sourcemap, a provider of supply-chain-transparency solutions; and ongoing research in this area. – from chocolate to conflict minerals to cotton in t-shirts this open source is a gem in understanding every item in a finished product supply chain throughout the product life cycle.
“Thanks to the rapid global adoption of the cloud, it has recently become possible for Sourcemap to trace supply chains all the way to the first mile: smallholder farmers, artisanal miners and homeworkers”
It should be noted that all reporting is not the same- there are mapping, traceability, and transparency which all offer different types of views into the supply chain activities of a brand. Transparency is the ultimate goal as it discloses suppliers and does the best at showing a brands commitment to ethical and sustainable practices. Patagonia set the blueprint for companies and has been recognized by the United Nations for their environmental stewardship and sustainability efforts-- guess what they didn’t wait for customers to ask for this sustainable way of working. Value was created by having this as part of brand DNA from the beginning.
Another education tool is reviewing the Good Life Goals, these goals help consumers understand actionable ways in which they can easily act on in a time when labels are unclear and social standards are being violated. The Good Life Goals help make sense of United Nations Sustainable Goals in bite size pieces – perhaps helping consumers push for the sustainable products that brands are looking to them to demand production of.
Key Take Away
So, what is the key takeaway here? While consumers are quickly catching up with the evaluation metrics of what it means to be a sustainable brand through education, social media, and sustainable evangelists-it’s unfair to expect the customer to demand sustainable fashion production. The consumer knows what they expect in the finished product to be; how to achieve that should be left to the professionals. The lead must be taken by fashion brands to involve their supply chain experts in shining the bat signal of distress to clean up and streamline the fashion supply chain. Technology can help elevate a brand’s position along with better inventory policies and brands must understand ways to keep their well-informed customers coming back for repeat business.
In a nutshell, fashion needs Batman.
Cernansky, Rachel (2020) Vogue Business. Fashion can’t afford to wait for customer demand. Retrieved from https://www.voguebusiness.com/sustainability/fashion-cant-afford-to-wait-for-customers-to-demand-sustainability
Osgood, Diane (2020) Green Biz. Why sustainability professionals should drive green consumerism. Retrieved from https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-sustainability-professionals-should-drive-green-consumerism